Film / The Cannonball Run

The Cannonball Run is a 1981 film comedy directed by Hal Needham and starring Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dom De Luise, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Chan, and Farrah Fawcett. It was produced by Hong Kong's Golden Harvest films. There were two sequels, 1984's Cannonball Run II and 1989's Speed Zone! (also known as Cannonball Fever).

The movie is based on the Cannonball Baker Sea-To-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, an actual cross-country outlaw road race from the Red Ball Garage in New York City (later Darien, CT) to the pier at Redondo Beach, California, just south of Los Angeles. Organized by automotive journalist and the movie's screenwriter Brock Yates. (Yates, replying to concerns about public safety after the first Cannonball: "Never once did we exceed 165 mph.")

The story follows race car driver J.J. McClure (Reynolds) and mild-mannered mechanic counterpart, Victor Prinzim (DeLuise); the latter has a would-be superhero alter ego, "Captain Chaos". Together, they participate in the Cannonball Run in an ambulance — a heavily modified Dodge Tradesman van (which, incidentally, was the same vehicle driven by director Hal Needham during the last actual Cannonball.) They hire a doctor (well.. he owns a white coat, at least..) and kidnap an attractive Intrepid Reporter to serve as a "patient" to help them evade the police during the race. Each of the other Teams Of Hats they race against has their own arsenal of gimmicks for both racing and characterization.

Nowadays considered a guilty pleasure at best, but popular enough in its day to gross $72 million and inspire the sequels. Ironically, 1976's totally unauthorized The Gumball Rally (also inspired by the Cannonball races) is a much better film even though, or perhaps because, no one involved in that film was actually involved in races themselves. Another unauthorized 1976 film, simply titled Cannonball, reversed the direction of the race (California-to-New York) and added more of a Car Fu element.

A remake is in the works, to be directed by Guy Ritchie and financed by Warner Bros. and General Motors.

The Cannonball Run and its sequels contain examples of:

  • Accidental Pervert: Not really accidental, but J.J. takes revenge on Blake and Fenderbaum by telling a cop that they are a pair of flashers dressed as priests, because they think it's kinkier dressed as priests. This leads to Blake and Fenderbaum getting arrested.
  • Accidental Truth: Mad Dog and Batman tell a motorcycle cop that their brakes have failed. When they attempt to stop, they discover their brakes really have failed.
  • Adam Westing: Subverted with Roger Moore, in that he's playing a guy who thinks he's Roger Moore. Originally he was supposed to think he was James Bond, but they couldn't get the rights to use the character.
    • Played straight with Terry Bradshaw and Mel Tillis, who play over the top versions of themselves.
  • All Bikers Are Hells Angels: In the first movie, a gang of bikers start a brawl with the racers.
    • They also show up in the sequel, where we see them harassing a family of Chinese-Americans selling produce alongside the highway. Jackie Chan shows up and politely asks them to stop. They decide to beat him up instead. Guess what happens next.
  • The Alcoholic: Jimmy Blake (played by Dean Martin). The race organizer describes him as being more juiced-up than his Ferrari.
  • Ambulance Cut: After J.J. waves to some women while driving a motorboat, Victor tries to warn him about another boat ahead of them. After the trope plays, they get the idea to use an ambulance in the race.
  • Amphibious Automobile: The car of Jackie Chan in the first sequel can operate like a submarine. Used to evade police.
  • Arab Oil Sheikh
  • Asian and Nerdy: Two characters, one played by Jackie Chan of all people, racing for the car company Subaru.
    • In the first sequel, Jackie reprises his role, this time in a Mitsubishi that sort of closely resembles K.I.T.T. in form and function.
  • Ass Kicking Pose: Subverted comically.
  • Author Avatar: Technically, J.J. and Victor, the Transcon Medi-Vac drivers played by Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise, represent Hal Needham (director, pilot of the real-life Transcon Medi-Vac) and Brock Yates (Cannonball Run inventor, script author, co-pilot of the real-life Transcon Medi-Vac).
  • Bad Habits: In the first film, one team is disguised as Catholic priests. In the second, two actresses playing nuns in The Sound of Music convince J.J. and Victor they're the real things so they can ride with them.
  • BANG Flag Gun: Seymour Goldfarb pulls this prank on his mother.
  • The Big Race
  • Blind Driving: In the first film, the stock car shows up at the hotel with its hood flipped over its windshield.
    Mel: I can't see shit, can you?
    Terry: No problem. No problem.
    Drives into a swimming pool.
  • Bluffing the Authorities: J.J. and Victor plan ahead for this in both films.
    • In the first film, they do the race in an ambulance and try to convince a pair of New Jersey state troopers that Pamela is a patient they have to transport to California. However, they failed to anticipate one of the troopers' questions. Good thing they brought a doctor. note 
    • In the sequel, they masquerade as a pair of army men transporting contaminated material from a nuclear meltdown to Connecticut. They fail to convince the police officer who pulls them over and he decides to phone them in. The actresses dressed as nuns make him change his mind.
  • Brains and Brawn: Jackie Chan's character and his new partner for the sequel, Richard "Jaws" Kiel.
  • Butt-Monkey: Arthur J. Foyt
  • The Cameo: Several.
  • Captain Ersatz: Played straight during the movie (Captain Chaos... later, "Captain USA!"), but subverted during the Closing Credits ("I always wanted to be Captain America!").
  • Car Meets House: Mad Dog and Batman park their truck in the lobby of the hotel in the first instance of of their 'no brakes' Running Gag.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Seymour Goldfarb's "hat"; he perpetually refers to himself as Roger Moore (implying a possible Napoleon Delusion), and his gimmicks are pure recycled James Bond.
  • Cool Car: Several, for various values of "cool". Such as the Lamborghini Countach
  • Cosmic Deadline: Particularly egregious in Cannonball Run II, where the end of the actual race is only shown in a Travel Montage after the big fight scene that serves as the movie's climax.
  • Creative Closing Credits / Hilarious Outtakes
  • Creator Cameo: In the first movie, Brock Yates as the race organizer and Hal Needham appears as the ambulance EMT.
  • Didn't See That Coming: Chief Edsel's plan in Speed Zone is to block off every highway leading into Los Angeles and send all traffic down one route, then catch the racers when they get to a roadblock. However, he doesn't count on 1)a hijacker attempting to take over a plane before it takes off, 2)subduing the hijacker resulting in the plane's wings and tail getting sheared off, and 3)a wealthy passenger (also a racer) bribing the pilot to "drive" the plane to Los Angeles...only to crash into the roadblock and shove it out of the way. To be fair though, who could have seen that coming?
  • Distracted by the Sexy: J.J. crashes his boat because he was distracted by bikini-clad women on another boat.
    • Also the "hat" of the busty girls in the Lamborghini Countach in the first film. This is pretty much their default tactic until it fails on a female cop.
  • Dr. Feelgood: Dr. Nikolas van Helsing is the habit of injecting himself (and anyone else who asks for it) with the unspecified contents of a hypodermic he always carries, which causes him to get a blissful grin and then pass out.
    • The good doctor was a proctologist, so he'd want his patients to be reeeeeeaaaaaalllly "relaxed".
  • Driving into a Truck: Implied to have happened (which is to say, we don't actually see it happening). JJ and Victor's car (dressed up like an ambulance) is stopped in line at a roadblock which is set up specifically to catch and arrest Cannonballers. While waiting in line JJ spots a semi with an empty flatbed. Cut to a shot of the semi & flatbed with some large, ambulance-shaped object under a tarp. They sneak by the roadblock under there.
    • In "Speed Zone", the driver of the Countach calls for help to a trucker hauling a empty car carrier when being pursued by a state cop. The trucker agrees. With some fancy driving the speeder loses the cop by driving aboard the car carrier... or so he thinks. The driver unexpectedly gets a tap on his window, and the cop is there asking him for his license and registration. (Its implied that the cop has driven aboard the car carrier also.) The driver gets out of the ticket because the truck hasn't stopped, and they all cross a state line, so the cop is now out of his jurisdiction.
  • Dudley Do-Right Stops to Help: Costs McClure's team the race in the first movie, when Captain Chaos turns away from the finish line to help rescue a random bystander's "baby"(pet dog) from drowning. Lampshaded.
  • Ejection Seat
  • Epic Race
  • Every Car Is a Pinto
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: The second movie has an feisty orangutan as part of a team.
  • Faking Engine Trouble: Mad Dog and Batman tell a motorcycle cop that their brakes have failed so he wil clear a path for them and they don't have to slow down. A few seconds later, they discover their brakes actually have failed as they are speeding towards a railway crossing with a train on it.
  • Feedback Rule: With a delay. When Mr. Foyt takes the stand at the Friends of Nature meeting, the microphone behaves itself, then it feeds back in the middle of his speech.
  • A Foggy Day in London Town: Seymour Goldfarb (Roger Moore) says this when his car starts filling up with smoke after using the smoke screen and oil slick to get the pursuing police cars off his tail.
  • Gonk: Jack Elam's Doctor Van Helsing, in all his "glory".
  • The Good Captain: Captain Chaos, oddly enough.
  • Hilarious Outtakes: Their use here inspired Jackie Chan to include them in all of his films (though of course, his outtakes tend to be rather less hilarious, focusing on the grisly results of stunts going wrong).
    • Two outtakes seem to be more memorable 30 years later than the others... (1)J.J. and Victor standing next to the ambulance as Dom continually screws up his lines; and (2) one with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr, disguised as priests, and some rosary beads.
    Burt Reynolds: I'm gonna take these rosary bleeds [sic] and stick them right up your nose.
    Dean Martin: These bleeds?
  • Hitchhiker's Leg: The mafia in the second movie get The Sheik to stop his car so they can kidnap him by the simple expedient of having a showgirl open her blouse as he drives past.
  • Hollywood CB
  • Ignore the Fanservice: What happens when the girls in the Lamborghini are stopped by a female trooper.
    "Well hello, hot pants. I don't suppose you've got a driver's licence tucked away there now do you?"
  • I Know Karate: "I must warn you. I'm Roger Moore!"
  • Impersonating an Officer: Blake and Fenderbaum disguise themselves as cops in the second movie. Not nearly as funny as their priest disguise in the first film.
  • Jewish Mother: Seymour's mother.
  • Logo Joke: The 20th Century Fox fanfare is interrupted by an animated car chase that knocks out the trademark searchlights.
  • Lovable Rogue: J.J. McClure, and most of the other characters as a whole.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Burt Reynolds kidnaps Farrah Fawcett.
  • Metallicar Syndrome: Played with when a black Lamborghini tears past another competitor's car on its way to the finish line. The passed car's driver (Dean Martin) asks if it's in the race, and his co-driver (Sammy Davis Jr.) looks at him like he's an idiot before screaming for him to catch it.
    • Likewise in the sequel, where two hot chicks in a Lamborghini are practicing for the Run by messing with the local cops. They even invested in a false paint job: after getting the local cops all worked up looking for a speeding Lamborghini of one color, they drop by a friendly construction site and have the fake paint washed off. Presto, now there's a DIFFERENT speeding Lamborghini with two hot chicks in it tearing around the local cops!
    "If I tell you boys something, you boys won't think I've been drinking, will you? The white Lamborghini has vanished...but there's a RED one behind me—correction, PASSING ME, and it's got two great looking chicks in it!"
  • Mistaken for Gay: The French airplane passenger in Speed Zone whose accent turns a simple offer of food ("You would like my peanuts?") into a risque proposition ("You would like my penis?")
  • Napoleon Delusion: Seymour Goldfarb, Jr. thinks that he is Roger Moore.
  • Night-Vision Goggles: Another fine product of Subaru.
  • Noodle Incident: The story of how Victor found Van Helsing.
    J.J.: "I'm sure that doctor's a very sweet man, basically. But don't you ever tell me where you found him. Ever."
  • Oil Slick: Seymour uses one to ditch a pursuing police car.
  • Over Drive: The "afterburner" of Jackie Chan's car.
  • Phone Booth: Arthur J. Foyt is trapped inside a phone booth by a vehicle that has backed itself in front of the door and couldn't get himself out. He tries to slide underneath the opening at the bottom of the booth, but apparently gets stuck.
  • Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...
  • Ramprovisation: Mad Dog and Batman use a conveniently placed trailer to jump over a train after the brakes in their truck fail.
  • Random Events Plot: Next time you watch this movie or others like it (Gumball Rally, Speed Zone), compare the number of scenes that are about an illegal, cross-country road race with the number of scenes that just happen to take place during one.
  • Repetitive Name: In the sequel:
    Cannelloni: When I passed the powers of the my son Don...making him...Don Don...
  • Retirony: According to J.J, his father died two days before he was supposed to retire.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Don Cannelloni has one in the second film. It dies on him and gets replaced.
    This cat is dead. Get me a new cat.
  • The Rival: Martin and Davis' characters to J.J. and Victor.
  • Running Gag: Every time Seymour appears, he is wearing a different tuxedo and is accompanied by a different girl.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Beautiful!: The hat of one of the teams, a pair of be-jumpsuited Lovely Angels who rely on I Have Boobs, You Must Obey! to evade speeding tickets (or to get whatever else they need during the race).
  • Spiritual Successor: The movie has the same star and same director as Smokey and the Bandit.
  • Stutter Stop: Singer Mel Tillis, playing Terry Bradshaw's partner in the race, actually has to sing some of his lines just to get them past his stutter.
  • Superheroes Wear Capes
  • Super-Powered Evil Side: Subverted. Captain Chaos has no real super powers but he is a serious badass. He's also not evil but definitely lives up to his name and has a steak of Stupid Good that winds up costing Victor and J.J. the race.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: Performed by Ray Stevens.
  • Thoroughly Mistaken Identity: One of Seymour's girls thinks he's George Hamilton.
  • Train Escape
  • Vandalism Backfire: Speed Zone! has Vic and Alec come upon the Lamborghini they raced a few scenes earlier at a convenience store. They spy on Flash and Valentino buying supplies, then plot revenge. Vic acts by ripping apart the Lamborghini with his hands. He's caused quite a bit of damage by the time Flash and Valentino leave the store. While Vic and Alec hide and watch, Flash and Valentino walk behind a row of cars, get into their actual Lamborghini, and drive off. Just after Vic and Alec realize what they've done, Michael Spinks (a well-known boxer) walks out of the store.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story - many, many examples. Landing an airplane on a city street to buy beer? A famous stunt by Curtis Turner. The fake ambulance? Actually used in a real Cannonball. They even used the same van in the film.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Doesn't work when you're pulled over by a Fair Cop.
    • Catherine Bach's character plays it straight in the first sequel to persuade a tow truck driver to go with her team after she and her partner hijack his pickup.
  • Wacky Racing
  • Weaponized Car: Seymour's Aston Martin.
  • Wrench Whack: In the brawl with the bikers, J.J. punches a huge biker in the face several times to no effect in a Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh... moment. The biker mockingly points to the other side of his jaw and suggests J.J. try there. J.J. says "Thanks" and immediately smacks the biker across the face with a spanner.
  • You Do Not Want To Know: More like I Do Not Want To Know: J.J. explicitly forbids Victor from ever telling him where he found the revolting physician he recruits to "staff" their pseudo-ambulance. Several times.

Alternative Title(s): Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run II, Speed Zone